|Three BIllboards Outside Epping, Missouri, dir. Martin McDonagh, 2017|
My disappointment at Three Billboards outside Epping, Missouri is only exaggerated by the success with which it is being showered. As I rode home after seeing the film, I was sad and stunned to think that a film in which no one is asked to take responsibility for their crimes, no one has firm commitments and consistency of character, not one single character is redeemable, despite the fact that they are all redeemed, is on track to winning Oscar Awards. I have never been much in agreement with the jurists of the Academy Awards, but the success of this film is disturbing for a number of reasons.
Yes, Frances McDormand is a great actor and yes, she might win an academy award, but that doesn’t make the actions of the character she plays in anyway condonable. Her Mildred Hayes is allowed to drill a hole through a fat dentist’s finger nail, set the local police station alight and disfigure the face of the bad cop, and promise to kill the rapist and murderer of her daughter, without reprisal. No one in Three Billboards is asked to face the consequences of their actions. I understand that the film’s anti-authority politics is important – the critique of the police as institution (which turns out unfounded) in which a single bad apple is often to blame — but even that narrative is not convincing when the angry cop merely loses his job for throwing a young man out the window and beating him up on the street. Said cop then swiftly has a character change across an edit, thus becoming someone not so bad afterall. Once again, he suffers no retribution for his violence. Indeed, his racist, misogynist vitriol can all be overlooked by Mildred when he tells her that he has found the killer of her daughter. Miraculously, the two who began the film as enemies are so chummy that they conspire to go on a road trip to hunt down the killer of Mildred’s daughter. This change of heart completely erases all Mildred’s convictions, and with them, my conviction about her revenge.
There is a chance that the film is a self-conscious satire on the liberty with which people in these parts of America freely escape punishment for their crimes in the interests of white, middle-class superiority. But I don’t buy this argument. The unevenness of the characterization, the badly handled discourse on race, the inconsistency of gender representations may all be in the service of comedy and entertainment, but it’s without social consciousness.
Even Spielberg’s hokey film, The Post, is more legitimate than Three Billboards. Spielberg might be too attached to the cute moments such as kids selling lemonade that have no narrative use whatsoever, but at least Spielberg has a conviction and adheres to it. Of course, I probably don’t need to say, if asked, I would give none of these films prizes. A big shining cast and a massive budget a great film does not make. For my money, I would rather see The Taste of Cement win prizes and be applauded by the glitterati. The Taste of Cement is a film about Syrian migrants working on a building site in Beirut. It contains real life drama and horror, rather than a fictionalized account in which everyone gets off scot-free as they drive off to tame wild American servicemen who committee heinous crimes. It's also a film whose use of the camera and formal representations echo the entrapment of its human subjects. But no one cares about The Taste of Cement because it’s about the plight of poor migrants effectively imprisoned by the same world that is preoccupied with its unconvincing revenge narratives.